City Council votes to continue research into plastic bag ban

Jillian Bliss

After demonstrations by both supporters and opponents of a proposed ban on plastic single-use shopping bags, Austin City Council members voted to continue research on the ban 12 hours after their meeting began.

The City Council postponed voting on the issue until the end of their meeting that started at 10 a.m. and included an extended lunch break. Members also postponed voting on whether to delay implementation of extended hours for downtown parking meters until a later meeting.

During previous discussions on the proposed plastic bag ban, city officials discussed the major cost to the environment and to city funds that plastic bag use creates.

Matt Curtis, spokesman for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, said approximately 263 million plastic bags are used in Austin every year. The plastic bags do not decompose and cost the city approximately $850,000 annually to dispose of. Curtis said former plans asking retailers to voluntary reduce bag usage only decreased use by 20 percent.

City Manager Marc Ott will draft a city ordinance providing a comprehensive phase out plan for plastic bags over the next year to be heard during later meetings.

Representatives from five bag manufacturing and recycling companies from Dallas, Houston and other Texas cities attended the meeting to speak against the ban.

Austin residents and company representatives who spoke during the meeting had mixed viewpoints on the issue.

Mark Daniels, vice president of Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Hilex Poly Company, said plastic bag manufacturing and recycling companies retain approximately 8,800 jobs every year. Daniels said eliminating plastic bag use in large cities will eventually eliminate these jobs and harm the state economy.

“I understand your fear and concern, but it doesn’t resonate with me that this will shut you down and hurt your jobs,” said council member Mike Martinez.

Daniels and other company representatives said council members should make a stronger effort to encourage plastic bag recycling, rather than totally prohibit the product.

Members of numerous organizations supporting the ban gathered at City Hall on Thursday before the City Council meeting, sharing various personal beliefs for their feelings toward the proposed bag ban.

“I see this as a moral issue when we talk about environmental stewardship,” said Lou Snead, Faith Presbyterian Church pastor. “A growing number of the faith community is concerned with environmental stewardship, and I’m very excited seeing we may take a step toward this.”

Some, including a group of protesters clad in paper and plastic bags, said they hoped officials would eventually move to only allow reusable shopping bags within the city.

Others, including Austin resident Jenn Studebaker, said they oppose any bag ban because they feel it could do more harm than good. Studebaker interrupted a press conference held by the Austin Zero Waste Alliance before the council meeting to share her opposing view.

“In India they banned plastic bags, and you can spend up to five years in jail if caught with one,” Studebaker said. “We’re basically criminalizing trash.”

Studebaker told council members during the meeting she did not believe enough citizen voice had been considered in deciding whether to move towards the ban.

Updated at 10:48 a.m. minor edits throughout, council's decision